Chris Bowden – Unlikely Being
(UK Vibe 25. CD review by Mark McKergow)
Alto saxophonist and composer Chris Bowden returns to the scene with this new group/project/album featuring atmospheric tunes, extended arrangements, powerful performances and good old-fashioned groove.
Listeners with longish memories may recall Bowden’s breakthrough albums Time Capsule (Soul Jazz, 1996) and Slightly Askew (Ninja Tune, 2002). Both attracted attention at the time for their ambition, power and individuality – listeners with shorter memories might enjoy checking them out. Since then Bowden has worked with outfits such as The Herbaliser and 4Hero, as well as going through some tough-sounding times with drugs.
In an in-depth interview on his label’s website (link below) Bowden talks about this period, his time in rehab and reveals that for a time he didn’t even have a saxophone, but was writing tunes on an old borrowed keyboard. He also released a couple of small-scale recordings with Ben Markland and Neil Bullock as The Tomorrow Band some years ago.
Unlikely Being, therefore, is Bowden’s first new project in a good while. Neil Bullock is still with him on drums, and the group is completed by Jim Watson on keyboards and Chris Dodd (bass). What we get is six tracks, around an hour of music, which definitely connects in some ways with the Bowden of old, with a smaller line-up (the quartet is augmented occasionally by Bryan Corbett’s trumpet with Tom Chapman adding percussion) and perhaps slightly more reflective yet optimistic tone.
The opening New Crobuzon references the fictitious and dangerous place created by sci-fantasy author China Miéville for books such as Perdido Street Station. A dramatic opening leads into middle-eastern modes with Bowden and Corbett doubling the extended tune. The effect of the doubled horns is eerily ambiguous – clearly not a single instrument yet so closely together in tune and tone that it had me listening hard to figure out what was happening. Bowden’s opening solo is a clear sign that he’s back in the fullest sense – the tone full and crisp, jumping from neat passages to high-altitude wailing and back again, with Bullock’s drums and bell-like cymbals in active and energetic support. Chris Dodd then weighs in with the first of several excellent bass guitar solos, spacious and imaginative, before Corbett’s trumpet arrives to up the pace once again. Jim Watson sparkles (as ever) on piano before the tune rounds off.
Several of the track feature very attractive grooves – Ridiculous Itinerary has a driving and shifting beat over which Bowden solos effectively, with Watson effervescent on Rhodes piano. We Are Alive sounds for all the world like theme for an unmade ’90s American domestic sitcom (and I mean that in a good way!) before arriving in a latin groove allowing great solo space – Chris Dodd shines very brightly here, before a drum-break section that has me thinking back to the glory days of acid jazz.
The closing tune We Talked stands in contrast to all this excitement, a supremely moving and tender ballad that Bowden wrote with inspiration from a conversation with his late father. “Sometimes, words can feel inadequate,” says Bowden, “it’s really just being there for each other that’s important.” Perhaps that’s a lesson for all of us.
This attractive album is a worthy return for Chris Bowden, and I hope we will be hearing more of him and Unlikely Being in the months and years ahead.